Tree.

There is no picture of this tree.

There are only the oak leaves waving at the highway: a black strip of rock
fast-moving between the stillness of roots in the earth, and the wind in the wide-sprawled branches.

This tree (I think) grew up alone. They called them wolf trees, because they stood apart. Broad-limbed, because they needed little height to reach the sun. This one is maybe 300 years old, which is old enough to have been alive at the same time as the great forests of chestnut and hickory and oak; but this one was a meadow tree, if I am guessing. A wolf. It is too wide and short to have needed to fight for sunlight when it was younger.

I am guessing. I sit with my back against its deep-grooved bark, and watch the black ants crawl up the side of my pack. We are quite small.

The last glaciers left this area over 10,000 years ago, and the trees and people began to settle, then. The earliest traces of folks using fire to manage this forest date from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and immigrants from the 1600s wrote about how the local tribes would regularly burn the forests late in the year, which kept the under-story clear for hunting, and maintained the meadows and the high yield of berries and nuts from the forest ecosystem (which, in turn, supported both animals and people). I read a book yesterday that quoted a settler from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He described the woods in 1634 as “park-like,” filled with massive hardwoods (broad-leafed trees, like chestnut and oak), towering high over grasses and berry bushes.

Tens of thousands died from disease epidemics that century; and by the end of those years, with no people to carry out regular forest burns anymore, the larger forest understory would have been densely packed with new growth*. (The settlers used fire to clear their lands, but did not use it to maintain the wider forest to the extent that it had been in the past.)

[*I will find a reference for this at some point. Sorry** I am busy being in the forest.]

**Not sorry.

I don’t know if it was ever surrounded by sheep. It is quite likely. Most of the stone walls in this area were built between 1810 and 1840. If I am remembering correctly, the walls for sheep had to be four and a half feet tall, and this height requirement was strictly enforced; somebody else’s sheep might wreak havoc on your fields. It was only because there was a merino wool craze, then. Portugal had had a monopoly on the market, but then Napoleon invaded; and then America seized the opportunity to import Merinos. Thanks, Napoleon, I guess. (And mostly William Jarvis, for smuggling 4,000 sheep across the ocean.)

Gypsy moths were introduced to our continent in the 1860’s, and there have been a number of Gypsy moth outbreaks since then (though, right now, the poor moth caterpillars have problems with pesky fungal attacks, so they’re struggling too). Oak trees like this one, in times of dire insect defoliation, throw jasmonic acid up into the air. It then floats downwind and conveys the message of danger to their oaken forest friends, who promptly load their leaves with enough tannins to get those darn caterpillars. Poor moths. Fungus. Tannins. Talking trees. It’s a hard life when you’re a moth.

I wonder if this oak flung jasmonic acid or something else when they first laid the highway across its roots. I wonder how long there has been a highway, and if the tree felt the rumbling railroad first, or cart wheels passing under its wide spread. I wonder if the huge dead limb that has been chopped up into convenient sitting stumps is because the old tree didn’t want to carry it any longer; or if it has started the slow dropping of limbs and bark, and massive outward transfer of nutrients, that characterize a dying tree. (For more on trees and root communication webs, check out this article I just obtained for your perusal.)

I am sorry that I have no picture of this tree, for you.

Sail

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